by Kim Hooper
In writing, there is much discussion of “the muse.” Who is it? Do we wait for him/her/it to appear, or go to work anyway? Does the fact that we talk to this muse make us schizophrenic?
When I think of my muse, I think of a very lazy queen, sitting atop her canopy bed, in satin pajamas. She smokes those long, skinny cigarettes and sips champagne at all hours of the day. She is snotty and judgmental. She has ideas, see, and she is not happy unless they are brought to life in the way she envisions. She doesn’t help with much of this bringing-to-life business. If anything, she gives me one line, usually at an inopportune time, like in the shower, or on a walk when I am without a pen, or in the middle of the night. How many times have I patted around my nightstand at 2AM in search of paper and a pen to please this demanding bitch?
The thing with muses is that, despite their demands, they are passive, not active. Mine is immortal, like a vampire (and judging by her preference for middle-of-the-night visits and the way I feel she sometimes sucks the creative life out of me, maybe she really is a vampire). She has all the time in the world. She teases me with ideas and just waits. She is happy if I finish that short story or novel, but I think she is also happy just sipping champagne and smoking long, skinny cigarettes.
It is my job, as the writer, to be active. It is my job to take what she gives me—inspiration from that news article I read, that tidbit from the family holiday gathering, a thud on the head with that same novel idea I’ve been mulling for months—and make it into something. If I take the initial first line she gives me and go with it, she’ll give me more. When I open a new Word document, she’s thrilled (or, actually, I think she’s the type to be “titillated”). If I set the table, in essence, she’ll continue to feed me.
Some days, I don’t have mental energy, and I may wait for that to return before I embark on a project, but I don’t really wait for the muse. To me, this phrase doesn’t even make sense. The muse is always there, waiting to be beckoned from her canopy bed. She might not come right away when I call her (she may be giving herself a pedicure), but she will come. She’ll hear the whir of the computer, or my pen scrawling across the paper, and she’ll come.
Kim is the author of People Who Knew Me.
Who: Jennifer Haigh, New York Times Best Selling author
Talks about: doubt
In life there are choices we have to make that, in hindsight, don’t seem like choices at all. We might say that the situation found us, or the decision made itself. But at the time we worried, were anxious, filled with doubt because what if we picked the wrong thing? Since the writing life is like any other aspect of life, can you share how you’ve moved through periods of doubt? How you used the doubt to enhance your process? Did you welcome it, so to speak, to go from being stuck to unstuck? How does it, each time, eventually resolve?
JENNIFER: “Like most writers, I live in a nearly constant state of doubt. This is particularly true in the first year of a project, the conjuring phase, in which I am making something out of nothing. My initial enthusiasm is interrupted again and again by troublesome flashes of common sense, in which I recognize the unlikeliness of success, the better-than-outside chance that the fragile thing I’m fashioning will turn to dust in my hands. This is no idle fear. It’s happened to me more than once, and will doubtless happen again. The only way to guarantee it won’t happen is to write the same book and over again, something I’ve chosen not to do. This summer I finished my first-ever short story collection, NEWS FROM HEAVEN, and found myself as nervous as when I delivered MRS. KIMBLE ten years ago. I’ve written short stories my whole adult life, and yet this project felt very much like writing a book in a foreign language.
“Unless you’re willing to risk a giant pratfall, it’s impossible to write anything of value. It’s a question of writing through the doubt. I’m now working on my sixth book, paralyzed by uncertainty, and the answer is the same as it ever was. I get up and go to work.”
Jennifer Haigh is the author of the widely acclaimed Heat and Light, and three New York Times bestselling novels, Baker Towers, The Condition, and Faith. Her first novel, Mrs. Kimble, won the PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction, and Baker Towers won the L.L. Winship/PEN award. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic and Granta, Best American Short Stories.
The writer thinks about intention, chronological order and connection to a story.
Kim Hooper lives in Southern California with her husband and an absurd number of pets. PEOPLE WHO KNEW ME is her debut novel. She earned her masters in professional writing from USC, and is a senior level copywriter for a large advertising agency (you’ve seen her work on popular brands, believe me!). She’s been writing stories since she was seven or eight years old, many of which her mother still has somewhere in a box. For childhood birthdays, Kim used to request baby name books, which she would use to name her characters. She’s also kept a journal since she was six (electronically now) but there are about 20-30 hardcovers, with keys, in fireproof safes at her parents’ house. Visit her at http://kimhooperwrites.
Meredith: Do you plot your novels or do they take you on a “meandering” path? Tell us the good, the bad and the everything.
Kim: My novels always start with one line. I just get a line in my head. I have
a book with a collection of these lines. For some reason, some resonate with me more than others and I just start writing to see where the line takes me. After about twenty pages or so, as I get to know the characters, I start thinking, Is this a short story? A novel? That’s when I give some thought to overall plot. I think about where I want the characters to go, how I want them to interact. Still, even when I develop a rough outline, there are lots of holes and gaps that are very much intended. I find the most interesting twists and turns when the plot is not set in stone. I don’t like to meander too much, but I think it’s very powerful to just see where the story goes. It’s pretty obvious when it goes way off course.
Meredith: Do you see your work as a huge mural or do the pieces emerge one color, one notion, one word at a time?
Kim: I start small, with one line in my head (a little birdie, I guess you could say). Even when the bird flies away and an entire sky is revealed, I still fixate on the minor details of the landscape. It’s too overwhelming for me to think about “the big picture” when I write. I may have a very general idea of it in my head, but I like to figure out characters and plot points as I go. It’s more exciting that way. In terms of career, I am definitely the same way. I dream about how I want my career to shape up, but I take one little story or novel at a time, without much expectation placed on it. I try to think of it the way I did when I was a kid, before I knew there was such a thing as a publishing industry. I try to remember that it’s pure joy to start with one line and see where it takes me.
Meredith: [I love this question so I tend to ask it often of different people.]The child development writer Joseph Chilton Pearce said: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” When you write are there “rights” and “wrongs” for you?
Kim: I’ve definitely struggled to let go of the fear of being wrong. Now that I’m trying to get my first novel published, I’m second-guessing other in-process projects: “Is this character too similar to the other one? Is the tone too familiar? Should I use first person again?” I assume there is a system of rules to follow, when really there is not. When working on a novel, I feel like I have to write scenes in chronological order, even if a scene later on in the story is begging me to write it. It really is a challenge for me to think of writing as I did when I was younger—just fun. When I am able to see it that way, without rules and “rights and wrongs,” I write better.
Meredith: How do you connect with your work and your voice best? What works?
Kim: Lately, I start writing by hand, with mechanical pencil, on blank pages of computer paper. I have no idea why. I’ve always liked to start by hand, but the pencil on blank paper is new. As hokey as it sounds, I feel more connected to the story when I write long-hand. It’s not always practical though, as my wrist gets very sore. I go to the computer once I feel like I’m in a groove with the characters and the plot. If I get stuck, I come back to long-hand. After I have everything typed up, I print it out and go to town with more long-hand edits—sometimes, pages and pages of them.
Meredith: Is writing your only art? Your main one? Do you use other methods to access the creative well?
Kim: Sadly, I’m not very creative otherwise. I used to be much more crafty, but now any creative energy I get tends to go toward writing. However, I am very creative when it comes to making ready-made meals from the store appear homemade.
“Faith in self has to be protected and nurtured like a fire in the rain, because I don’t think a long-term project can be sustained if you don’t believe you’re capable of completing it.”
— Therese Walsh
Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed (writerunboxed.com) with Kathleen Bolton in 2006 and is the site’s editorial director. Her debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, was nominated for a RITA Award for Best First Book and was a Target Breakout Book. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, received starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, and was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal. She has a master’s degree in psychology. You can learn more about her on her website, theresewalsh.com.
Meredith: In her book, Women Who Run With the Wolves, Jungian analyst, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, says: “Creativity is a shapechanger. One moment it takes this form, the next that. … It is not virtuosity, although that is very fine in itself. It is the love of something, having so much love for something—whether a person, a word, an image, an idea, the land, or humanity—that all that can be done with the overflow is to create. It is not a matter of wanting to, not a singular act of will; one solely must.” Please share how your process fits or doesn’t fit what she says. Tell us how you’ve come to see the process, or if it has changed for you over the years.
THERESE: Thanks so much for having me. First, let it be known that I’m a big fan of Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Women Who Run With the Wolves.
In my experience you have to be able to dwell in your concept, your theme, your story world, until all thoughts about those aspects ring true. It takes a lot of time and energy (and absence from ‘real life’) to make this work, for me. What it requires is something akin to obsession. For me it isn’t always healthy, not always love. But it is a deep-seated need to express something as authentically as possible.
So I agree with her – I see why she chooses to use the word ‘love’ – but my experience is not always filled with gladness for my story or my characters. Sometimes it feels like torment, to be honest. But it’s always burning hot and undeniable – a storyteller’s passion, with all of its highs and lows, if that makes sense – and I know that feeling won’t stop until I serve the work.
Meredith: Where you find yourself scared and paralyzed, either of something you are writing, of revealing yourself through the work, or for any other reason, how do you start moving again? And by moving I mean forward, not backwards, as in retreating.
THERESE: Fear is something I’ve considered quite often. I think it’s a wildcard, actually, and so I’ve demystified it a bit in my own mind. When I fear something, I remember other times I’ve faced a fear – believed I would behave one way (cowardly), then surprisingly behaved exactly the opposite (hurrah!). Fear is duct tape over my mouth, hands dragging me into a closet, a key turning in a lock, and I try whenever I feel it to remember that I am the one placing the tape, doing the dragging, and that I own that key. And then I feel freer.
A concrete example: When I wrote the character of Beth Moon, a depressed mother, in The Moon Sisters, I could feel myself holding back, draft after draft; I only approached the shadow of depression. I called myself on it. I’ve felt those feelings. I know more about how that woman would have felt than I wanted to let on. I was afraid, maybe, of putting myself into that headspace or revealing too much of what I may have felt in the past. But once I saw the truth of my paralysis, I faced it, and went as deep with myself and those feelings as I was able. And, of course, the work was better for it.
Fear is not any writer’s friend. It is something that should be actively called out and given a name.
Meredith: We all seem to have rules we are attached to—whether they actually work for us or not is another story. What is it about rules that make us feel like we are doing something correctly? Why, once we set up rules does it seem we need to break them to set ourselves free?
THERESE: Rules are a safety net. They are compliance with a set of standards someone else set a long time ago. They are the teacher with the sticker sheet of stars in hand, ready to put them on our work. They are the opposite of the time-out-chair or corner, depending on your generation; they are not naughty.
Art is messy. Art colors outside of the lines. Art is made away from the corner, naughty or not. And art strives for singularity over replication.
Meredith: How do you know when to stop? Either when it’s complete/done or when it’s never going to be complete/done? Have you ever been sad to have moved away from a particular work?
THERESE: No, the only work I’ve been sad about is the work that’s waiting for me to return to it; it’s been a challenging year. But I will return to it.
You know when to stop when your gut says, ‘This is the very best I can do.’ When you’ve been over it again and again, and you just know that what you’re looking at on the page meets or exceeds your standards as a reader. You know it’s time to stop when you’re just tinkering. You know when you suspect that tinkering might be making things worse.
Meredith: How do you keep the faith—or whatever you call it personally—when acceptance doesn’t seem to be coming?
THERESE: I’ve had to step away from the work on occasion, and ‘refill the well’ in ways that have nothing to do with art. I’ve also had to remind myself, through short-form writing projects, that I can write, that I have something to say, that it’s worth putting on the page. This can be a discouraging, difficult occupation even after our work is sold and on a shelf, so it’s important to always find ways to nurture ourselves. Faith in self has to be protected and nurtured like a fire in the rain, because I don’t think a long-term project can be sustained if you don’t believe you’re capable of completing it.
‘Believe, believe’ has become one of my mantras, and something I say often to my writer friends.
Meredith: Is there ever truly a balance between the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation? For you, are they unified or polarized? Or something else?
THERESE: If there’s a way to do this dance properly, I have yet to learn it. But I’m not much of a dancer (this is a vast understatement). I find that when I’m promoting, I’m hardly writing, and when I’m writing, I need to stand clear of promotion. That said, I know there are people who do this well. They relegate promotion to a certain time of day, and writing to another, for example. My mind just doesn’t work like that. I tend to ‘go down the rabbit hole’ on one thing at a time. Like I said, writing, for me, tends to be an awful lot like obsession.
There’s so much that goes into writing a strong novel that the dangerous part, early in your career, is not knowing what you don’t know.
I found that I could improve my craft by not only reading the stellar books but also by reading the crappy ones.
Alan Jacobson is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of 11 suspense/thriller novels, including two successful series (Karen Vail series and the OPSIG Team Black covert ops novels). His books have been translated internationally, many have been named “Best of the Year,” and several have been optioned by Hollywood.
Jacobson’s twenty years of research and training with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, DEA, US Marshals Service, SWAT, NYPD, Scotland Yard, and the US military bring unparalleled realism to his stories and characters. His series have been raved about by readers of all walks of life including law enforcement officers, real FBI profilers, and Navy SEALs.
Meredith: Is fear ever an issue, like does your creativity measure up?
ALAN: I’ve been writing fulltime for 22 years, and early on in my career, I did wonder about that. And that was honestly a normal thing because although I was well schooled and knew good writing from bad, that’s very different from writing a full-length novel that engages the reader, captures and holds her attention for 400 pages, that features deep and satisfying characters, and features dialogue that advances both story and character.
There’s so much that goes into writing a strong novel that the dangerous part, early in your career, is not knowing what you don’t know. Did I measure up? Was the secret sauce in thinking up good plots? Or memorable characters? Or both? If both, how did longtime authors do it—and keep a healthy balance so one doesn’t dominate the other?
As I read more and as I wrote more, I fell into a rhythm as to what constituted an engaging read—and how to create it for myself. I also discovered that just because a book was published did not mean it was exceptional, or even good. A lot of the published novels—from major publishing houses—were disappointing, and I came to learn that I could do a whole lot better. In essence, I found that I could improve my craft by not only reading the stellar books but also by reading the crappy ones.
That fear that you mentioned subsided and eventually vanished. By the time I started writing “The 7th Victim” (the first in the FBI profiler Karen Vail series and my third overall), I knew I could write with the best of them. No more fear.
Now, that said, fear does still come into play in one other aspect of writing: not making my deadline! It drives me to keep on schedule, to stay focused and on task.
Meredith: In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes, “Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it.” It’s kind of a corollary to that line in the Eagles song, “Already Gone”: “So often times it happens, that we lives our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” What’s your take?
ALAN: I think it’s possible for people to create their own obstacles and barriers to success—and creativity. For some, it’s ingrained in our personalities, our worldviews, to be able to pick ourselves up when the times are tough, when things are not going our way. Others don’t have that capability but they can be
motivated, through counseling or other external means, to find the path, find the key to unlock those chains that the Eagles referenced.
Writing is full of pitfalls that can cause obstacles and barriers. Rejection is part of the recipe of success. Almost every successful author I’ve ever known experienced rejection before overcoming it and getting their agent, or first contract, or significant sales. Those who are persistent, who have it within or otherwise find their keys, are often the ones who make it.
Meredith: If conflict is an essential part of every good story, what would you say the running conflict in your life is, the one that keeps your writing and creating at its peak?
ALAN: The drive to always be better, to find new and fresh ways of telling a story, of stressing my character. When my publisher asked me to make Karen Vail a series character because they’d had such a dramatic response to The 7th Victim, I resisted
because I knew colleagues who’d become stale and bored writing the same character book after book. I vowed that’d never happen to me because if I’m bored with what I’m writing, the reader’s going to be bored reading it. And I’d never put out a substandard book because my name’s on the cover—and my reputation is worth everything to me.
Each one of my novels excited me, and that’s a prerequisite for writing it. If it’s not working, I trash it and move on to another idea. It’s only happened to me once, and it was fairly early in the process, but I’m proud to have stood by my principles and started back on square one. It was the right decision.
So if you could call that an inner conflict, of pushing myself to do better and fresh and different, that’s what drives me year after year, book after book.
Meredith: Do you actively seek ideas, or is your style to wait and see what crosses your path?
ALAN: I never have to actively seek ideas or wait for things to cross my path. I’ve been fortunate to never have a shortage of story ideas. That said, I always have my eyes open. A friend of mine, author John Lescroart, posted something recently about writers always working…they’re either writing or thinking about writing. That’s certainly true in my case—ideas come to me at the strangest of times. I walked into my office one morning right after finishing Velocity (Vail #3), intending to start on a book in my OPSIG Team Black series. The thought “Karen Vail on Alcatraz” popped into my head and I brainstormed on the idea. Over the next few days I kept adding to the outline until I was so excited by it that Inmate 1577 became the next book I wrote.
Other times ideas come to me while working out—I don’t consciously think about it, but it just happens. Those are my creative times. I keep my iPhone within arm’s reach and when an idea strikes—it can be an idea for the book I’m currently writing or something completely new—I dictate the note so I don’t forget it. I then continue to work on it as it develops over the next several weeks. If it’s a Karen Vail story, I’ll run it by one of my two FBI profiler friends to get their take. If it’s an OPSIG idea, I’ll pitch it to one of my special forces contacts.
I currently have several ideas percolating for both the Karen Vail series and the OPSIG Team Black series, waiting in queue to be written. Since it takes me a solid year to research and write a novel, I’m stacked up for quite a while!
Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: Iʼd really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But itʼs not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, itʼs the person. Why, do you think, itʼs such a seductive slope?
ALAN: I can see that. And for me, the writing part is what I truly love. I get grumpy when I’m not writing. Of course, the reality is that writing is only one thing we do as authors. The business end actually consumes more time; it encompasses everything from working with your publisher, promoting your books, dealing with your agent and entertainment law attorney or website designer, posting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, attending conferences, traveling to the locations where my book is set…or following up with my research contacts to ask questions to make sure I’ve got my information correct. Then there’s working with my editor, and copyeditor, and proofreader. There are a million things to manage. As shocking as it may seem, although writing is the most time-consuming part, it’s but one piece to that puzzle called a novel. So it’s very easy for this seductiveness to get lost in all the minutiae, bogged down by the day-to-day business requirements. Depending on what point I’m at in the cycle, it sometimes requires a Herculean effort to get my writing in each day.
For me, the seductive slope is Hollywood. I’ve had several books optioned for film and/or television, and came close twice—very close once—when we were several weeks away from filming The 7th Victim for TNT, which I was co-producing. The problem is that it’s easy to expend a great deal of time and creative energy working toward seeing your book hit the screen—only to have the plug pulled in the eleventh hour due to unrelated things that emerge at the worst possible times. Such influences are out of your control—and when they hit, you realize you could’ve written an entirely new novel during the time you expended on what turned out to be a dead end. And suddenly you have nothing to show for that wasted time. To me, that’s one hell of a seductive slope…because it never stops calling.
[Thank you, Alan!]
“I’m amazed by how often I’ve struggled with piece of writing only to return to it months, or even years, later to find that it all comes together with little thought.”
Sam Apple’s first book for children, The Saddest Toilet in the World, was published this month. Apple is the author of Schlepping Through the Alps and American Parent. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Wired, The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, The MIT Technology Review, The New Yorker (online), McSweeney’s, and Slate.com, among many others. He was a finalist for the PEN America Award for a first work of nonfiction. Apple teaches creative writing and science journalism at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the founder and publisher of The Faster Times.
Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: I’d really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But it’s not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, it’s the person. Why, do you think, it’s such a seductive slope?
SAM: I’m not sure I know the answer to the question, but I think it touches on an interesting phenomenon. It seems to me that lots and lots of people want to be authors, but I’m not so sure that lots and lots of people still want to read books. I’m not sure how the seductiveness of authorship has survived the diminishing role of literature in American life, but I suppose I’m glad that it has survived
Meredith: Writing [or maybe, revision?] is [generally] solitary. Selling is not—selling as in marketing, promo. How do you help them make peace with one anther inside you? Or do they?
SAM: I don’t think they ever do quite make peace inside of me. I know plenty of great writers who are extroverts, and they tend to do a fantastic job of publicizing their work. But I’m more of the stereotypical quiet, standing-alone-by-the-appetizers type of writer. I try to promote my work on social media, but I always feel a bit self-conscious about it. What’s interesting, I think, is that I find it hard to be open on social media, and yet my shyness doesn’t prevent me from writing very personal things in my books. I think book writing creates a safe distance between me and my audience (or, at least, gives me the illusion that such a distance exists), whereas the immediacy of social media collapses that distance.
end or foe?Meredith: When you sit down to write, are you in charge? What I mean is this: are you the scribe or the master creator? Both? Neither? Sort-of corollary: would you describe your mind (in terms of writing) as a fri
SAM: I am definitely not in charge, and I think that the less in charge I feel, the better my work turns out. I suspect a lot of writers feel the same way. I’ve long been fascinated by this phenomenon, but what struck me more recently is that if I’m not in charge when I’m writing, I’m probably not in charge when I’m not writing either, as I don’t think conscious control is the sort of thing one can turn on and off. So, thinking about this question had made me deeply skeptical of the entire notion of free will.
Meredith: Can some stories not be found? Why/why not?
SAM: I’m not entirely sure, but I do think that many stories need to percolate for a long time to before they’re ready to make it out into the world. I’m amazed by how often I’ve struggled with piece of writing only to return to it months, or even years, later to find that it all comes together with little thought. I suppose this touches on my response to the previous question.
Meredith: Homeostasis is a concept I learned on my first day of graduate school. It means the desire to revert back to the familiar, for things to remain the same. As a writer, how do you remedy this type of stagnation which can thwart creativity? Or, do you believe there’s a time for it?
SAM: Another interesting, tough question. I think there’s only so much you can do to fight the homeostasis, and many of my favorite writers tend to hit the same notes over and over in their books — Philip Roth and George Saunders come to mind. But one of the very nice things about writing is that there aren’t many drawbacks to taking risks in your work. The worst that’s going to happen is that you waste your time, or perhaps end up with a bad review. I always encourage my writing students to experiment with different genres and themes.
I’m reminded of a bit of wisdom I picked up from the memoir of the great fiction editor, Ted Solotaroff. While driving with Bernard Malamud at night, Solotaroff was struck by Malamud’s cautiousness behind the wheel, and by how this caution stood in stark contradiction to the risks Malamud took in his work. Solotaroff never forgot the lesson: caution in life; daring on the page.